Foster, Robert William DFC AE

RAF Wing Commander Robert William Foster DFC AE was an Ace during World War II.

(AE: The Air Efficiency award was a UK honour given for ten years’ efficient service in the Reserve Air Forces of the UK, Commonwealth and Empire. Unlike other long service and meritorious conduct awards, both officers and enlisted men were eligible. It was established in 1942 and discontinued in 1999.) 

Robert, or Bob as he was known, is a well known figure at book and print signings in many parts of the UK. Although recognised as a Battle of Britain veteran, little is known of his life, or the details of his war service with the RAF. Persuaded to tell his story to air historian and well established aviation author, Norman Franks, the result was his book, “Tally Ho” from the Battle of Britain to the defence of Darwin.

Bob was born in Clapham, South London on the 14th May 1920 and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in May 1939. He was called up in September 1939 and commissioned in June 1940. After he completed his training, he was posted to 605 Squadron RAF, which was equipped with Hawker Hurricanes.  By early September 1940, he and the Squadron were in the thick of the air fighting over southern England, operating from Croydon. Surviving the Battle of Britain, he claimed one-and-a-half destroyed, one probable and five enemy aircraft damaged. He later became an instructor with 55 OTU in September 1941, and was then transferred as a Flight Commander to 54 Squadron, which had Spifires. The Squadron became part of a group that was to be sent to Australia to join No.1 Fighter Wing RAAF to defend the Darwin area. The Squadron arrived in Australia in June 1942, however it was January 1943, before they were ready to begin operations. 

Records of 54 Squadron, while it was stationed in Australia, contain the following excerpts which show us how Bob spent some of his days:

On the 2nd February a Japanese ‘Dinah’ reconnaissance aircraft was reported approaching Darwin. Several Spitfires from 54 Squadron scrambled, and Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster dispatched it into the Timor Sea just off Melville Island. No.1 Fighter Wing had its first victory and the Japanese had been denied photos of the presence of the Spitfires. This was the first Spitfire victory in the Pacific. It was somewhat in vain however, as the next day another ‘Dinah’ flew over the area unmolested.

Other reports indicate that the fight happened on the 6th February as follows: Flight Lieutenant Foster, Flight Sergeant Mahoney, Pilot Officer Farries and Sergeant Monger were scrambled to intercept an incoming “plot”. However Monger and Farries returned ten minutes later, possibly with mechanical problems, leaving Foster (White 1) and Mahoney (White 2) to complete the sortie. The “plot” was Lieutenant Kurasuki Setaguti and Lieutenant Fumio Morio, in a Mitsubishi Ki-46 ‘Dinah’ of 70 Independent Chutai. Flying from Timor, it was the unit’s first reconnaissance flight of Darwin. The two Spitfires headed to the northwest, climbing. Foster’s radio was unserviceable, but he could still hear communications from ground control. He was instructed to patrol over Bathurst Island at 25,000 ft. Told that the bandit was now at 8,000 ft, the Spitfires descended through a thin layer of cloud to 12,000 ft. After being vectored north of their position, the ‘Dinah’ was observed flying towards them, before beginning to climb in a northwesterly direction. Bob began closing on the greyish blue aircraft on its rear quarter. When at a range of 300 yards, slightly below and astern, he open fire with two short bursts, sighting hits on the port engine. Now down to 200 yards, his second burst hit both engines and the fuselage. He had closed to 100 yards before firing another two bursts. This time, flames began to lick from the port engine, which then spread quickly to the rest of the aircraft. The Dinah then dived and spiralled out of control, hitting the sea 70 miles north west of Bathurst Island. The crash was seen by both Foster and Mahoney and at no time did the two come under return fire.

The photo, taken on the 24th March 1943, is of some of 54 Squadron pilots congratulating Bob after one of his victories over Darwin. Left to right: Gerry Wall, unknown, David Wheeler, Bob Foster, Sergeant Dennis Monger, unknown, Ian Taylor (part obscured), George Farries and Harold Leonard. (Courtesy AWM and negative by H. Turner). The next one was taken on the 22nd June 1943 after a Japananese air raid: Bob is on the left and 49239 Flying Officer M.C. Hughes is on the right. Both had kills during the raid. (Courtesy AWM).

Foster Robert W Pic 6

On the 7th September, the Japanese sent a twin engine reconnaissance aircraft heavily escorted by 21 fighters. The first warning of this reconnaissance in force came at 8.30 am when the enemy planes were 180 miles from Darwin. Twelve aircraft of 457 Squadron were ordered to go to exit points to intercept them. Radar operators thought at first that only one aircraft was coming, but soon it was clear that many were on their way, and a total of 48 Spitfires took to the air led, by Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster. While the Spitfires of 54 Squadron (Candy) and 452 Squadron (Troppo) were near Port Patterson, the pilots saw 21 enemy aircraft 16 miles west of Sattler and at a higher altitude. The enemy fighters attacked before these Spitfires could gain a height advantage. In the affray which followed, one enemy fighter was destroyed and two probably destroyed. A Spitfire pilot, Flying Officer William Hinds, was shot down and killed, while two others, Squadron Leader Ron MacDonald, commander of 452 (Troppo), and Pilot Officer Paul Tully, also of 452 (Troppo) were shot down, but escaped by parachute. Foster Robert W Pic 8

While he was in Australia, Bob claimed five aircraft destroyed with his last victory on the 6th July 1943. He was awarded the DFC for his efforts.

Bob returned to the UK in February 1944 and was given an assignment with the RAF Air Information Unit, a public relatiions outfit, and HQ Fighter Command. He ended up in Normandy within three weeks of the invasion of 1944. Often serving right up in the front lines, Bob saw the war at a very close hand, and then quite by chance became one of the first, if not the first RAF officer to enter Paris with the liberating French army, and again by chance, was in General de Gaulle’s triumphant procession down the Champs-Elysees.

Foster left the RAF in February 1947 but joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force a year later. He left the Air Force in 1958, working with his pre-war employer until his retirement in 1975. He became chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and a life vice-president of The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. He wrote his autobiography “Tally Ho” in 2009. His memoir is an entertaining collection of stories and reminiscences of two distinct areas of WW2. It also shows how luck often shaped the lives of the fighter pilots involved.

Bob passed away aged 94 on the 30th July 2014.

Courtesy Amazon Books
Norman Franks, East Sussex, UK
Bruce Read and Steve McGregor
Updated by Vince Conant and Greg Blackmore
The Spitfire Association